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TA 101: Survive and Thrive


You check your email, expecting more of the same: that particular type of academic spam that includes pleas to submit your work to some unheard-of journal, reminders from your online course, and Dropbox notifications. And then you see it, that most delightful of all subject lines: “Offer: Assistantship Funding.” Phew!

So, you’ve been accepted as a TA. Congratulations! You celebrate for a hot second when it dawns on you: you’re about to be thrown into a classroom with 100+ students who will be coming to you with endless questions; most of which were answered in the syllabus. They’ll be submitting dozens of papers that you’ll have to collect and grade. What if you actually don’t know enough about the subject to write a paper yourself, let alone assistant-teach the class? Eek!

Relax. You got this! You were selected for a reason and the fact you’re reading this article means you care enough to do some research. Here are a few handy TA tips to help you not only survive but thrive.

As a TA you’re going to be proofing papers – lots of papers! Get help from the BibMe plagiarism tool to check for unintentional plagiarism in your students’ papers.

Learn your students’ names

I know this seems impossible. There are hundreds of people in the class and half of them are named Ashley or Brian. But it will make your life easier if you know their names. You’ll be better able to track attendance and know who’s doing well and who needs help. Plus, it makes you look like you know what you’re doing when you greet them by name. It makes handing back graded papers easier, too.

If you’re like me and have a terrible memory, use these tried-and-true mnemonic tricks to learn their names:

  • Do an icebreaker that will give you interesting facts about them. You’re more likely to remember a person’s name when you know something about them.
  • Look for patterns. Perhaps Brendan, Brandon, and Brian sit next to each other in row three. Don’t let their similar names befuddle you; use it to your advantage by identifying row three as the “B” row.

Be super-organized

Spreadsheets are your friend! Try not to be scared of them. They’re super handy for tracking attendance, grades, due dates, and pretty much anything you can think of. There are a lot of online videos and resources to help if you’re new to using Excel and its more advanced features.

You should be the person whom both your fellow students and the instructor rely upon to know the answers. Make it a point to learn the syllabus, memorize due dates, and have everything at hand. As you know, we students have dozens of assignments and grades to keep track of. We have brain farts. Wouldn’t you want your TA to be able to immediately tell you when the essay is due or what they made on the last pop quiz?

Stick to the books

If you’re tasked with leading discussions or making study guides, rely as heavily upon the instructor’s chosen material as you can. In a typical week, you and your students will have to read hundreds of pages for classes; that leaves little room in our brains for any other new material. Even if you have an article that perfectly illustrates Concept X, if it’s not on the syllabus, leave it at home.

However, by all means, use creative, visual ways to communicate information. Leading a study group? Design an infographic that shows this week’s material using a free tool like Canva. Giving a guest lecture? Make a Prezi that breaks down the concepts.

Lead by example

You overslept, your cheap car broke down, you got held late in another class. It happens. But you simply can’t be late as a TA. Your fellow students will betray you: while it’s okay for them to be late (at least, to them), it’s never okay for you to be late, and they will call you out on it. Do everything you can to ensure that you can be on time for the class you TA. I once missed the bus, so I ran two miles to be at the class I was TAing on time. Anything is possible with adrenaline.

In addition to being timely, you should be attentive and professional. During class sessions, no checking your phone, no working on other projects, no multi-tasking, period. I know, it sucks. But as soon as you divert your attention from the lesson, everyone else follows. Don’t be that guy (or girl).

Do your own work first

Wait, what? you say. I’m being paid to TA, so I’ve got to prioritize that! Yes, you do, but your own coursework needs to be your top priority. That’s because there will always be more TA work, and it’s easy to fall into a pattern where you never stop working on TA duties while your own work suffers.

By the same token, stick to your office hours. That’s your time to answer questions, grade papers, and do everything you’re assigned to do. Yes, you’ll need to pull some extra hours to get it all done, but when possible, you should set clear boundaries with your students. Don’t answer their messages at 4 a.m. Don’t meet with them outside of office hours. Respect your time (it makes time management easier, too).

When things go sour, don’t wait to address it

I know you’re not like this, but some students are simply awful. They feel entitled to A’s and they’re abusive toward anyone who holds authority — especially TAs, because they think you’re a punching bag. And you’re not!

Get the instructor involved at the first sign of a problem student. Don’t be like me: I waited until the problem student cornered me and the other TA in my office and became physically aggressive to let the supervising professor know. By that time, our academic careers were on the line because the student, who hadn’t turned in a single assignment and still expected an A, had written to the dean asserting that we were treating her unfairly. Get your side of the story straight before it gets to that point. (For the record, it turned out fine for us.)

There you go: a handy 101 course in how to survive and thrive as a TA. In a nutshell: be organized, be proactive, be cool. Remember: you got this.

No matter the discipline you are supporting, BibMe.org has the right citation style for your works cited page. MLA citation format, APA referencing, and Chicago manual of style are covered in depth with plenty of examples, to help you and your students cite it right the first time.

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